WASHINGTON – House Democrats are hoping changes they made to a bill to expand court oversight of government surveillance inside the United States will find enough to support to win passage on a second try.
A vote was expected Thursday on the second attempt in a month to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates when the government must obtain court permission to carry out electronic eavesdropping. Last month House Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force the withdrawal of a similar bill just before a vote.
Democratic aides think the small changes they made in the bill since then will garner majority approval and protect the bill from a similar fate.
The Democratic bill lacks one key feature President Bush is insisting on: legal immunity for telecommunications companies alleged to have secretly helped the government monitor Americans' phone calls and e-mails without court permission. About 40 civil lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies, alleging they broke wiretapping and privacy laws, and the White House has threatened to veto any surveillance bill that does not protect the companies. The White House contends lawsuits could bankrupt the companies and reveal classified information.
The House bill would allow unfettered telephone and e-mail surveillance of foreign intelligence targets, but would require special authorization if the foreign targets are likely to be in contact with people inside the United States — a provision designed to safeguard Americans' privacy.
The special authorization is called a "blanket warrant," and would allow the government to obtain a single order authorizing the surveillance of multiple targets.
Republican critics say even blanket warrants would tie up intelligence agents in legal red tape and slow their ability to collect intelligence on terrorist suspects.
The White House says the surveillance law must be updated because of changes in technology that mean many more international communications now flow through the United States.
Also on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee was to work on its own eavesdropping bill. The Senate Intelligence Committee's version of the same bill contains an immunity provision for telecom companies.